Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Reading the Romance

It occured to me, after the billionth re-iteration of "what does Obama mean when he..." over at Balloon Juice, that when we watch our political overlords do their little monkey dance, and ring their little cymbals, we are engaged in a process of reading a text. We know that--we talk about reading the entrails, and reading the tea leaves, and reading the wall posters, and kremlinology, the horse race and handicapping--and we use all kinds of metaphors of reading, scrying, peering, code breaking, signaling, and discerning. But we very seldom ask ourselves what kind of text we are reading. I'm going to submit that a lot of the anguish and rage in the debate over Obama and his presidency derives from the fact that we are actually reading a particular genre--the Romance but we don't know it, or we refuse to acknowledge it. Maybe because we are embarrassed to admit it? Maybe because the majority of blog posters and commenters are male and pretend to be unaware of, or uninterested in, the conventions of the Romance. Not me, boy. I'm aware and interested in the Romance, and I see evidence of it all around.

I think that's going to be a hard sell for male readers and I know someone is going to read this and say b...b...but, b...b...but, I don't want to have sex with Obama I wanted to have a beer with him, or play hoops with him. But I don't think I have to go very far to point out that there's almost always a chaste homoerotic flavor to the approved male bonding rituals. Karl Rove's devotion to Bush was fairly explicitly modeled on Bush's sex appeal and the worn fit of his jeans over his rump. Do I have to remind everyone of "Dated Dean/Married Kerry?" or "Starbursts?" The position of the voter/reader in this narrative is a very fluid one--sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug. Sometimes you are the male protagonist, sometimes the female. Sometimes you are in a singular, monogamous relationship, sometimes you find yourself in a compound in Big Love. They say that in our dreams we are all the characters. And what is the Presidency and the party structure but a collective dream--or delusion of collectivity?

I'm not likening the voter, or the blog poster's, relationship to Obama to a Romance because I'm trying to insult people, or to insult the way they (or we) made our choice for President. Romance isn't something icky and emotional that happens to women. And Romance isn't a synonym for hysterical and ill thought out. Its not even solely a synonym for love. Its not opposed to the rational. Its just a subset of all other kinds of narratives about human relationships. As a narrative it follows its own conventions. And as a very popular narrative reflecting some very popular cultural forms and issues we instinctively fall into its tropes when we are doing certain things like choosing a candidate or evaluating our relationship with a candidate or a President.

In the case of Obama I'd submit that for some voters the relationship was a classically romantic romance, in the sense of a passionate attachment to an idealized figure but for others it was an unromantic romance, more akin to an arranged marriage in which the voter is joined to a distant, important, candidate for purely social and political reasons: Party identification, necessity, rejection of other candidates. Both kinds of unions are part of the romance genre. Both unions can and do involve a period during which one or both parties is in the relationship without really knowing the other. And isn't that what all our blog discussions about what Obama's actions in his first year mean amount to? And isn't that what all the Administration's, and the Congress's, fixation on polls amounts to? We are both trying to guess what our beloved's actions mean for the relationship. Obama and the Dems are guessing what the voter's "meant" by the MA election. We are trying to guess what Obama "means" by pushing forward (or not) on DADT, or getting (or not) Health Care Reform passed. That's not some weird game we are both playing: its the natural result of the fact that the relationship is not that of an old, married, couple who can trust each other but the result of a short campaign/an arranged union between candidate and voter.

The great Romances, like Austen's Pride and Prejudice, contain this early period of examination, infatuation, code breaking, rune reading, misunderstanding and high comedy before the marriage. Other classic Romances put this period after the marriage (Heyer's A Civil Contract is the one that comes immediately to mind but there are plenty of others). In fact, bringing together two parties in an arranged marriage, or a marriage that precedes courtship or mutual understanding, is very common in the modern Romance. The parties are brought together before they really know each other and each must spend the bulk of the relationship--the first year in office?--struggling to decipher the actions of the other person and breaking the code of a largely non verbal and inexplicit set of actions read as messages. Whether the romance ends in comedy, or tragedy, depends on how successfully those messages are received or decoded--just look at Romeo and Juliet.

The situation is complicated by the fact that the voter is not the sole mate of the candidate--we're more in the position of one of an infinite number of polygamous brides. We're in this marriage with someone we don't know well, who is quite distant from us physically and socially, and we are trying to interpret his public gestures and speeches and add them up and gain some insight into his next move. Meanwhile, we aren't his only focus. In fact, he appears to be trying to bring new women into the marriage--he's sometimes speaking to that new audience of potential wives. He's sometimes negotiating with a different set of in laws. He's sometimes diving into our collective purse to pay for these new interests. He's sometimes turning his eyes back to us and promising us more attention, or more money, or more something so we don't run off with the next plausible rogue. (The more I think about it the more the entire exercise, and Obama himself, remind me of the characters in Big Love: Obama is the milquetoast, middle class, reasonable, average man who out of devotion to "the principle" finds himself marrying more and more wives and having more and more children. He thinks of himself as a sacrificial offering and a dominant patriarch helping each wife and child to a greater, more enduring union but he appears to be largely ignorant of his wive's true interests, goals, and life situations. He's constantly putting out economic and political fires in the "real world" while at home his family is struggling to support him, misunderstanding what he's doing, and being misunderstood in turn.)

Sometimes, if we are FDL, we think we can get his attention back by threatening to leave. Sometimes, if we are Angus the God of Meat (see this entire Things Will Burn thread) we think that we can hold his attention by promising to be loyal and faithful regardless of how he disappoints us. More to the point, we are sure that if the other wives don't deviate and hold fast, things will definitely work out. A certain kind of voter/political activist is sure that the best thing to do is to make sure all the other wives stay in line, that will certainly keep the husband from straying. Another voter/political activist is certain that all we need is a wives's union and a better bargaining structure. All of these responses make sense--all are rational, political, economic, logical and culturally grounded in a model of the candidate/voter that is essentially highly romantic. Both the "punish him until he pays attention" and "propitiate him until he loves us again" argument are typical and stereotypical ways of dealing with a distant lover.

And that brings me to another romantic aspect of our relationship with Obama: our identification with him as a figure of nobility, or scorn, of adoration, or contempt. Very few of us seem to be able to view Obama as the mere techno/wonk he wants to be. That's not the result of some weird psycho voter drama--that's the nature of our political system, the way the candidate presents himself, campaign promises, and the failure of the President's post campaign strategy of governance. Rightly or wrongly, joyfully or sadly, the President--this President--offered himself as a new way forward, a way to repair our relationship with the rest of the world, a way to solve our political, social and economic problems here at home. He raised a lot of hopes, and he did it by promising to be a lot of different things to a lot of people in need. That was a heavy charge to accept and the result of the campaign was a pretty heavy psychic and social burden for him and the party. Since Obama got into office he's tried to manage his voters' expectations: putting forth initiatives, damping down expectations, offering bipartisanship, talking about moving forward, cautiously reassuring the markets. We, who chose him for a spouse, or had him thrust upon us by the two party system and accepted him on faith as better than the other guy, have literally nothing to go on but these gestures, speeches, and attempts to assess where this relationship is really going. Yesterday and today's freak out about the spending freeze is a case in point. We here in the harem find out about Obama's decision via tweets, signals, tv shows, third party interlocutors none of whom seem to have the exact ear of the President, none of whom knows definitively what he thinks he means by it.That's not a feature of the system: that's a bug. Its not a response to criticism to say "Obama promised it would be a long road" or "people need to grow up" or "stop making a fuss every time you don't get what you want out of the political system." Its a problem for Obama, and the Democratic Party, that they can't figure out how to communicate with their own voters--their own lovers--without creating disappointment, confusion, and rage.

People can be happy in an arranged marriage, they can be confident they've made the right choice, they can even be happy in a polygamous marriage where attention and money are divided among multiple heirs as long as they feel they understand or agree with the goals of the group as a whole. But if the leadership is too distant, or too incompetent to correctly communicate its ideals, or if the acts don't match up with the rhetoric the wives and children end up splitting off if they can.

--edited to fix pesky minor grammatical faults.

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